Born to teach

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Muriel Fisher is 100 years old next week. Not bad for someone who spent 43 years in schools. She shares some memories with Paul Fisher

Muriel Fisher, a teacher and head for 43 years until she retired in 1961, celebrates her 100th birthday next week. She reckons she's one of the few former teachers to reach this landmark age. "I shouldn't think many doI they'd be too tired," she says.

Born in Brightlingsea on April 14, 1901, she says she always wanted to be a teacher. "As a little girl I used to teach the flowers in my garden," she says. In 1947, the then Miss Seagers (she married my father after her retirement) was appointed head of St John's Green school, Colchester. "The Colchester garrison filled after World War Two," she remembers. "We got a different mixture of children. They were a little more difficult."

More difficult?

"More sophisticated."

In what way?

"Some had been round the world."

She is reluctant to condemn the injustice of women teachers being paid less than men and having to resign when they married. "Yes, it annoyed us intensely," is as far as she will go. And later, sotto voce: "Men always want more."

She regards her headship as her "career high point": setting the curriculum, doing the paperwork, taking charge, coping with government inspectors.

She fetches an HM Inspectors' report from 1954. "There is no radio set or gramophone," the inspector wrote. "The possibility of supplying a lead from the set installed in the dining hall and used by the junior department might be investigated.

"The headmistressI directs the school with tact and understanding and concerns herself wholeheartedly with the happiness and welfare of the children and the staff. The children are natural and friendlyI there is a pleasant, quiet orderliness, allowing for a certain amount of personal freedom in their movement about the building."

Vindication for Miss Seagers's regime of "ordered freedom". "I let them walk around a bit, but not do everything they wanted," she says.

A more relxed approach than in her early days when she'd faced classes of 60 pupils. "They sat in rows; you talked, and it wasn't thought of for children to move about. It was like that for a long time."

She says they could all read by the age of seven. All of them? She thinks so, and is equally positive discipline wasn't a problem. "If they were desperately naughty, you would send them to the headmaster for the cane. Otherwise you might smack them. You'd be taken to court for that now, wouldn't you?

She was one of three in her primary class to get a scholarship to the County High in Colchester. During 1918-19 she was a student teacher at Wivenhoe girls' school, where she had 50 13 to 14-year-olds in her class. Success in the Senior Cambridge exams - equivalent to A-levels and sat over a week, including evenings - qualified her for Southlands Wesleyan college (now, still with its Methodist connections, the Southlands University of Surrey Roehampton). "We had a teaching practice every term for two years," she says.

She got her teacher's certificate in 1921 and returned to Brightlingsea to teach boys and girls "whose brothers and sisters I'd been friends with. My biggest mistake."

She soon transferred to the Canterbury Road school in Colchester and, two-and-a-half decades later, took up the St John's infant headship.

"I'd had that ambition for a number of years," she says. By then class sizes had shrunk ("154 children on roll, Miss Seagers and five qualified assistant mistresses," says the report), and towards the end was teaching the grandchildren of pupils she'd taught as a young woman. Do you remember any names? Another pause. "Constantine. Constantine Selby. A lovely boy who was in my very first class after I qualified. He was rather inclined to be a nuisance. If I let him stay with me at playtime and sharpen the pencils, I had no trouble with him."

I apologise for my persistent questioning. "No dear," Muriel replies, returning the HM report to its old brown envelope. "No, you're doing all the work."

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